NPR logo Would Dukakis Be The Oldest Freshman Senator?

Would Dukakis Be The Oldest Freshman Senator?

With Massachusetts expected to change the law and allow its governor to appoint an interim U.S. senator to succeed the late Edward Kennedy — and with an appointment expected within days — there came this question from Harvey Hudson of Eden Prairie, Minn.:

Reportedly if Massachusetts law is changed to provide for the appointment of an interim U.S. Senator pending a special election, Michael Dukakis, the former governor and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, is likely to be named. Dukakis is now 75 years old. Has anyone that age ever become a freshman senator before?

Dukakis would be up there but not the record holder. That honor goes to Rebecca Felton (D), who was 87 years, nine months and 22 days old when she was appointed to the Senate in 1922.

Felton had spent decades in Georgia political and public life, beginning when her husband served in the House. On Sept. 26, 1922, Sen. Tom Watson (D) died. Gov. Thomas Hardwick quickly announced his own candidacy for the seat, but in an effort to help his cause with female voters — and trying to bury the fact that he initially opposed ratification of the 19th Amendment — he picked Felton to serve until the special election. Felton won acclaim for becoming the first woman to become senator, but Hardwick's symbolic move was seen as a "transparent political ploy." He lost the Democratic primary for the Senate seat to Walter George.

When President Harding called for a special session of Congress in November to consider the Ship Subsidy Bill — my goodness, I can talk about the Ship Subsidy Bill forever — it gave Felton an opportunity to appear on the floor. But the special session lasted just two days — making Felton not only the oldest senator, and the first woman, but one with the shortest tenure. On that second day, she essentially ceded her job to Sen.-elect George.

This information was taken from an invaluable resource: Women In Congress 1917-2006, compiled by the House Clerk's office, and edited by Matthew Wasniewski.

Noemi Levine of Berkeley, Calif., loves the idea of a Senator Michael Dukakis:

Dukakis could be a great rest-of-Kennedy's-term senator if he took it as an opportunity to work and vote for everything as Kennedy would have, and I hope as Dukakis himself would, especially real "health reform," without having to think about getting re-elected or any obligations to Big Pharma / Oil / Whathaveyou. He could be quite the maverick (take that, McCain!) and make everyone forget the unfortunate incident with the tank. He could sweet talk (or maybe wrestle) Max Baucus and come out with a single-payer bill. He could do a lot in his time in the Senate. Having said that, I have no doubt that I'll still have to stay employed until I'm 65 and eligible for Medicare, no matter what happens. It'd be nice, though.

And apparently the editorial page of today's Boston Globe agrees, calling Dukakis "the best choice to fill the vacancy":

The ideal candidate for the interim job would have a high profile, significant policy expertise, and a record of political independence - but no further political ambitions. Dukakis is the most logical choice; indeed, he may be the only one who meets all the relevant criteria.

As Patrick faces a tough reelection battle, he may be reluctant to return the state's last Democratic governor to the political stage, for fear of inviting more comparisons between the state's current fiscal troubles and the economic crisis of the late 1980s and early '90s. But Patrick shouldn't let what happened a generation ago bother him now. And he should resist the temptation to choose a non-politician for what will be a four-month stint.

The interim senator will have to do more than join the health care debate. He or she will have to represent Massachusetts's interests in hundreds of funding requests and constituent services. Dukakis, as a former Democratic presidential nominee, knows how politics works and can get his phone calls returned. He is far more likely to deliver tangible returns for Massachusetts residents than a career academic or anyone else who has never held elected office.

A variety of other names have been bruited about in recent weeks, most of which represent a cleaner break from Massachusetts political history. But Dukakis remains what he's always been: a dedicated student of public policy with a record of serving this state honestly and effectively.